South Carolina Primary Will Be a 'Turning Point,' Huckabee Says

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 10, 2008; Page A11

SPARTANBURG, S.C. , Jan. 9 -- The Republican race for president largely shifted Wednesday to South Carolina, where in 10 days a divided electorate is likely to crown one candidate the front-runner and cripple the chances of one or more others.

In advance of a debate Thursday night in Myrtle Beach, several campaigns said that South Carolina's primary will determine which candidates will advance to face Rudolph W. Giuliani in Florida on Jan. 29 and to more than 20 contests on Feb. 5.

"South Carolina is going to be a turning point in this nomination process," Mike Huckabee told a crowd of more than 200 in a speech at a Marriott hotel here as he made a campaign swing through the northern part of the state, a day after placing third in the New Hampshire primary.

Huckabee has been joined on the campaign trail by former Republican governor David Beasley, but party leaders here are by no means united behind one candidate. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham backs Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), while Sen. Jim DeMint supports former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Of the state's top two political strategists, one backs Romney, the other McCain. Voters appear to be no more certain, with polls taken throughout the past year not showing a consistent leader.

"It's wide open," said Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. "Everybody says they're down to a top two, but it's a different top two for everybody. It's going to be brutal."

It was brutal in 2000 after McCain's upset victory in New Hampshire over George W. Bush. The candidates questioned each other's honesty, and a false underground rumor that McCain had fathered a black child was circulated. Relations between Bush and McCain advisers remained strained for years after the South Carolina fight, an 18-day battle that essentially cemented the nomination for Bush.

Eight years later, the contest is not likely to be quite as decisive, as there are more candidates pursuing various paths to the nomination. Giuliani plans to effectively launch his campaign in Florida and is unlikely to appear much here, and Romney is shifting some of his television advertising to Michigan, the state where he was born and where he will face McCain in another showdown on Tuesday.

But South Carolina will probably be critical for Huckabee and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.), who have staked their candidacies on appealing to Southern voters. After finishing third in Iowa, Thompson skipped New Hampshire and came to South Carolina on Tuesday to start a statewide bus tour. Both campaigns are devoting much of their limited budgets for television advertising and ground operation here.

"No modern Republican has ever won the presidency without winning South Carolina," said Bob Wickers, a Huckabee adviser. "That's how important this state is to us."

Bill Lacy, Thompson's campaign manager, called the South Carolina primary "the decisive contest in the opening of the 2008 campaign." The state may be the last hope for a Thompson candidacy that has not been able to deliver on its hype.

The candidates will be appealing to a state party made up of powerful and distinct constituencies, including veterans who live in the southern part of the state, social conservatives in the north and an increasing number of Northern transplants who have relatively liberal views on social issues, such as abortion.

McCain, in particular, is focusing on veterans. In his first stop here Wednesday after campaigning in Michigan for most of the day, the senator held a rally at the Citadel, a military school in Charleston. Riding the momentum of his come-from-behind win in New Hampshire, his campaign is hoping that the backing of key establishment figures, including state Attorney General Henry McMaster and Maj. Gen. Stanhope S. Spears, head of the state's National Guard, will help push him to victory.

"We've got the fuel to run a campaign in South Carolina," said Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager. "You can't go there and set that up overnight, as some are trying to do."

Huckabee, eager to repeat the strong showing among conservative Christians that powered his Iowa victory, on Wednesday toured a faith-based pregnancy counseling center that encourages women not to seek abortions. He later pulled out his bass guitar for a rally at Furman University in Greenville.

Thompson is focusing on an issue of particular concern to many Republicans here: illegal immigration.

The campaigns expect a negative race. On the eve of the Iowa caucuses, when Huckabee decided against airing a negative ad against Romney, his staff warned him against pledging to stay positive throughout the campaign, aware that the South Carolina race might require a sharper tone than what the mild-mannered former minister normally employs.

"It's not something you can say you're proud of, but races here are hard-hitting," Dawson said.

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